Automatic Microfiche Scanner Digitizes Docs

While the concept might seem quaint to us today, microfiche was once a very compelling way to store and distribute documents. By optically shrinking them down to just a few percent of their original size, hundreds of pages could be stored on a piece of high-resolution film. A box of said films could store the equivalent of several gigabytes of text and images, and reading them back only required a relatively simple projection machine.

As [Joerg Hoppe] explains in the write-up for his automatic microfiche scanner, companies such as Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) made extensive use of this technology to distribute manuals, schematics, and even source code to their service departments in the 70s and 80s. Luckily, that means hard copies of all this valuable information still exist in excellent condition decades after DEC published it. The downside, of course, is that microfiche viewers aren’t exactly something you can pick up at the local Big Box electronics store these days. To make this information accessible to current and future generations, it needs to be digitized.

The camera panning over a full DEC microfiche sheet.

[Joerg] notes there are commercial services that would do this for you, but the prices are just too high to be practical for the hobbyist. The same for turn-key microfiche scanners. Which is why he’s developed this hardware and software system specifically to digitize DEC documents. The user enters in the information written on the top of the microfiche into the software, and then places it onto the machine itself which is based on a cheap 3D printer.

The device moves a Canon DSLR camera and appropriate magnifying optics in two dimensions over the film, using the Z axis to fine-tune the focus, and then commands the camera to take an image of each page. These are then passed through various filters to clean up the image, and compiled into PDFs that can be easily viewed on modern hardware. The digital documents can be further run though optical character recognition (OCR) so the text can be easily searched and manipulated. In the video after the break you can see that the whole process is rather involved, but once the settled into the workflow, [Joerg] says his scanner can digitize 100 pages in around 10 minutes.

A machine like this is invaluable if you’ve got a trove of microfiche documents to get through, but if you’ve just got a sheet or two you’d like to take a peek at, [CuriousMarc] put together a simple rig using a digital microscope and a salvaged light box that should work in a pinch.

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This Expedient Microfiche Reader Illuminates Retro Datasheets

You have to be of a certain vintage to remember doing research on microfilm and microfiche. Before the age of mass digitization of public records, periodicals, and other obscure bits of history, dead-tree records were optically condensed onto fine-grain film, either in roll form or as flat sheets, which were later enlarged and displayed on a specialized reader. This greatly reduced the storage space needed for documents, but it ended up being a technological dead-end once the computer age rolled around.

This was the problem [CuriousMarc] recently bumped into — a treasure trove of Hewlett-Packard component information on microfiche, but no reader for the diminutive datasheets. So naturally, he built his own microfiche reader. In a stroke of good luck, he had been gifted a low-cost digital microscope that seemed perfect for the job. The scope, with an HD camera and 5″ LCD screen, was geared more toward reflective than transmissive use, though, so [Marc] had trouble getting a decent picture of the microfiches, even with a white paper backing.

Version 2.0 used a cast-off backlight, harvested from a defunct DVD player screen, as a sort of light box for the stage of the microscope. It was just about the perfect size for the microfiches, and the microscope was able to blow up the tiny characters as well as any dedicated microfiche reader could, at a fraction of the price. Check out the video below for details on the build, as well as what [Marc] learned from the data sheets about his jackpot of HP parts.

With the wealth of data stored on microforms, we’re surprised that we haven’t seen any readers like this before. We have talked about microscopic wartime mail, though.

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Retrotechtacular: Hacking Wartime Mail

I’m guessing you got quite a few e-mails today. But have you ever had a v-mail? That sounds like some new term for video e-mail, but it actually dates back to World War II. If you are in Europe, the term was Airgraph — not much more descriptive.

If you make a study of war, you’ll find one thing. Over the long term, the winning side is almost always the side that can keep their troops supplied. Many historians think World War II was not won by weapons but won by manufacturing¬†capability. That might not be totally true, but supplies are critical to a combat force. Other factors like tactics, doctrine, training, and sheer will come into play as well.

On the other hand, morale on the front line and the home front is important, too. Few things boost morale as much as a positive letter from home. But there’s a problem.

While today’s warfighter might have access to a variety of options to communicate with those back home, in World War II, communications typically meant written letters. The problem is ships going from the United States to Europe needed to be full of materials and soldiers, not mailbags. With almost two million U.S. soldiers in the European Theater of Operations, handling mail from home was a major concern.

British Mail Hack

The British already figured out the mail problem in the 1930s. Eastman Kodak and Imperial Airways (which would later become British Airways) developed the Airgraph system to save weight on mail-carrying aircraft.  Airgraph allowed people to write soldiers on a special form. The form was microfilmed and sent to the field. On the receiving end, the microfilm was printed and delivered as regular mail.

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